Take a proactive approach to patients’ Internet use

Make sure they go to Web sites you find credible

It’s a scenario you’ve either already experienced or soon will: A patient comes to you with a problem. You examine him, make a recommendation, and suggest a follow-up visit. The patient goes home, logs onto the Internet in search of more information about his condition, and comes across www.quackMD.com, a Web site that espouses the latest off-the-wall therapy.

The patient stalks into your office for the follow-up visit, carrying reams of material he downloaded from the site, and furiously accuses you of not telling him the truth.

Patients getting the wrong information over the Internet is a major risk to the patient-physician relationship, asserts Fay Rozovsky, JD, MPH, senior vice president at Marsh Inc., a Philadelphia firm specializing in insurance and risk advisory services, and practice leader for the company’s Project MindShare in Richmond, VA.

Instead of setting yourself up for a confrontation with a patient who is angry about conflicting information he found on a Web site, Rozovsky suggests teaching your patients how to use the Internet to find good information.

This will involve searching the Internet yourself to find credible Web sites with information you know is accurate. Explain to patients how they can use the Internet to increase their understanding of their disease and help them manage it, she adds.

Check out the sites set up by the health plans you contract with, and see what they are telling your patients, adds Sandra Berkowitz, RN, JD, senior vice president and managed care practice leader with Marsh Inc. in Philadelphia.

Many health plans are creating hyperlinks to Web sites they believe contain useful and credible information, she adds. "They are sort of a double-edged sword. The information a plan may be feeding into its home page to attract patients may not be information the doctor is familiar with."

Before you pass judgment on the insurer’s site, look at its Internet strategy, Berkowitz suggests. "The plans feel that an Internet strategy is a survival issue. They view it as adding value to their services in an effort to get customers to stick to them," she says. Companies anticipate that in the not-too-distance future, instead of sponsoring insurance coverage themselves, employers will give employees a defined contribution and allow them to pick their own plans, she says.

"If the plans don’t create a way to attract the individual customer, they believe they will have missed the boat when the shift comes from the employer picking the plan to the individual choosing," Berkowitz adds.